There is that day, that momentous day, when they put the baby on your belly, the warm, wriggly, screaming baby, and the unspoken assignment is given: She’s yours. Take care of her. Good luck.
She cries for hours, and you wonder what went wrong, because it was supposed to be easier than this. It’s just a baby, after all, and you once were the office hotshot, the one expected to handle the big, impossible tasks. But now here you are, sure that your baby’s cries, translated, would result in your worst job performance review ever.
Then the cries cease, her body softens, and she falls asleep in your arms. You notice that she has her father’s eyebrows and the curve of his upper lip, and that she is a miracle, a gift, a one-of-a-kind wonder. Her tiny clenched fist rests against your chest. Hope enters your heart: Maybe I can do this.
For weeks she sleeps beside you. Then the time comes to move her into the next room, the one you spent months painting and decorating and stocking with perfectly folded onesies and still uncracked books. A wall separating the two of you feels unnatural, but you reassure yourself that space will be better for both of you. She will become more independent, and you will get more sleep.
And yet, in the middle of the night you find yourself checking on her, placing your hand on her chest to make sure she’s still breathing, scared she’ll awaken but knowing you won’t be able to sleep unless you know—she is okay.
You bring her to day care. The first day is fine, because there are new toys and kids to play with. You slip away unnoticed. It’s the second day, when awareness strikes her, that she clings to your arms. A fist is filled with your hair. Fat tears roll down her red cheeks. Is that panic in her eyes? But you free your hair, and this woman that you met last week, the one who you are now entrusting with your child’s care, takes her away. You sit in your car and wonder how you can drive when you’re blinded by tears.
There’s the first day of kindergarten. She waves goodbye to you, slightly hesitant, but excited for what is to come. At pick-up, she runs to you. Her arms wrap around your neck, and she’s still small enough for you to lift into your arms, her legs swinging like a metronome as you breathe her in.
She starts doing many things without you, many things that you did not teach her. She is center stage at the annual dance recital. She wins a school poster contest, the design and execution fully her own. Teachers gush about how smart she is, how kind, and you’re humbled. They are sure she will achieve whatever she sets out to do, and you agree. Because those are wonderful words. Achieving is a dream-filled concept. It’s the “doing” that, you will learn, is jagged in its execution.
Then comes middle school. For the first time, you put her on a school bus. Your suburban friends chide you – You’re worried about an 11-year-old on the bus alone? My child has been doing that since kindergarten. But this is New York City, where anxiety holds court, and you’re unaccustomed to other people transporting her, to her being outside the carefully constructed cocoon of the school you know well and the car you drive yourself. You buy her a cell phone just so you can have some connection with her, and insist that she calls you every day when she gets on the bus. A week goes by, and the calls stop, and you realize they were ridiculous anyway. She will be fine.
Then she’s 12 years old, a seventh grader, and she is given the opportunity to do more, see more, achieve more than you ever had. The new school means a long commute on city subways and buses; academic challenges; less sleep for her, because of the homework, and less for you, because of the worry. Those suburban friends have nothing to say now—they’re still coming to terms with letting their children walk alone to the bus stop. You’re about to set your child free in a city of 8 million. You are sure you’re insane. But you are raising your child to face challenges, to accept them. And so you say yes to the new opportunities, even though they petrify you.
One day you find yourself standing on a subway platform, the doors closing between your child and you. Doubt consumes you. She holds onto a subway pole; you hold onto hope that she will be okay. You anxiously await her text confirming she arrived at school safely. You pray there were no train delays, no perverts, no unattended bags that could herald the next New York City tragedy.
Your heart races and you feel out of balance. You are not ready for any of this. She was supposed to stay with you longer, need you longer, be yours longer. Wasn’t she? From your womb to rocking arms; from small hand in yours to a wave goodbye through a grimy subway window. You watch her go, watch her mouth the words, I’ll be fine, mom, as she squeezes onto a packed subway car. And it hurts. It hurts so so much. There was a time when your hand instinctively saved her head from knocking into table edges, when the pain and fear of the slightest injury could be eased by a hug and a kiss. You were supermom. And now you are the mom on the sidelines, hoping the cheering and the coaching are enough. There is so much for her to learn, yet so much of it she must experience on her own.
Time is not consistent. It bends and warps. You can still so clearly remember the feel of her baby hair, the way you could hold her whole body in your two hands. How can it be so far in the past, when it feels like merely a moment ago? How can you endure this strange tortured feeling of watching your child grow up, and away?
Then the day comes when you no longer feel the need to watch the train pull out of the station. You let go. You trust. And at the end of the day, you welcome her back home again.